09 October 2009

In two minds

I find myself in two minds about the declared intention of General Dannatt (recently departed head of the British army) to enter politics.

Put aside, for now, the fact that his chosen party is not one that I can support; in a democracy, that is neither here nor there. The general (pun unintentional) principle is what matters to me here.

It's probably a local principle, both spatially and temporally, rather than a universal one. There are societies where interpenetration of military and the civil body politic are the norm and, while I wouldn't choose any of them as a model, criticism of them is not my purpose here. More relevantly, the US regards military service as a definite electoral plus in a political CV. The US also offers in the person of Colin Powell a recent example of a general who, while part of a political party and an administration with which I could find no common ground, could teach most politicians much about honesty, dignity and integrity. European liberal democracies, however, differ in many significant ways from the US.

The European experience of soldiers in politics has not been a happy one. Within my lifetime, several of its constituent states have either experienced or feared military usurpation of civil power. Even in Britain itself, when I was in my twenties, the prospect of a "soft" military coup d'état was seriously discussed in some quarters.

The Britain of fifty to a hundred years ago was comfortable with leaders who came from military backgrounds. That was also a time when it was also comfortable with aristocratic influence on both military and government. The Britain of today is a very different place and, while I would be the first to admit that not all changes have been for the better, by and large I would not turn back the clock. One change has been an implicit, undeclared, and still shallow rooted, but tentatively real and strengthening, separation of army and state.

I do believe that General Dannatt has only the best and most honourable reasons for entering politics. He passionately and seriously believes that the way men and women under his command have been used in Afghanistan is insupportable. He equally believes that his responsibility to those men and women requires that he carry the argument on their behalf into the corridors of power where it stands a chance of being won. I respect him for that, sympathise with the drive, and applaud his determination to follow his conscience.

And he is not, for the moment at least, to be a politician himself; he is to be an advisor to one party. Nor is he the first to do so; though his decision to declare so soon after relinquishing such a senior position, at such an electorally emotive time, makes a big difference.

But the principle of separation seems to me, at this particular moment, the most important thing. Any appearance of linkage between military and party politics could undo thirty years of progress and undermine principles which Dannatt himself supports.


Ray Girvan said...

A counterexample in British politics would be Paddy Ashdown: he, though an ex-soldier, clearly wasn't bringing any military agenda to his role as an MP, nor wearing that background as a badge of prestige.

Felix said...

Agreed. Despite not actually liking Paddy Ashdown much, I think he is a first rate example of a politician for whom the military background presents his electorate with first rate value added.

I'm not sure that I would describe him as a counter example, though. Dannatt is deliberately presenting himself as entering politics (perceptionwise) as a soldier, and that makes him a very different case from Ashdown?